Sunday, February 3, 2008

First Post: By Guest Blogger DJA

I think this is my first post on my wife's blog. I felt it was time since (for once) one of the things of personal semi-interest has semi-intersected something my wife was doing the other day. She was watching a documentary on her computer the other day about the typographical font, Helvetica. I think you can see it here.

This was something I had heard about several weeks ago from a blog I read about computer programming and software design best practices, Coding Horror. The topic of fonts and readability was something I was first exposed to in a lunchtime lecture presented when I was a intern for Microsoft Research in 2005. The discussion was about the ClearType technology used in Windows to more smoothly render fonts on the screen, particular on LCDs, where the red, green, and blue sub-pixels can be easily and independently controlled. It turns out the optimal filtering algorithm to complement the processing done by the human visual system was developed by this guy, who is a member of Microsoft Research. He actually interviewed me when I originally applied for the internship in 2004. Very smart guy, as were pretty much all the people I met there.

In any case, this is all tangentially related to a very popular open source typesetting system used in Academia and in the open-source software world, LaTeX. I spent a good two years, from 2004-2006, rewriting and vastly improving a LaTeX (pronounce La-Tech) thesis template for the Georgia Tech community, all in my little bit of spare time. You can find it here. I used it for my MS thesis, and I understand that it has become quite popular with the ECE students there.

But TeX, which LaTeX is built upon, was invented by a giant of the computer science world, Donald Knuth. The Coding Horror blog had a post about him just a few weeks back as well. But that post, much like the original post about fonts and typography, serves to emphasize the tight, but non-obvious, coupling between art and science (or engineering).

This coupling is something I have come to appreciate much more in my first year and a half as a full-time employee of **. I was not trained as a software engineer. But working on software, it quickly becomes clear that there are many, technically valid ways to solve a problem with lines of computer code. But certain solutions are more elegant (some might say more correct, but if your code works, can you really say it is less correct?). Certain solutions lend themselves to better code reuse, or easier maintainability, or other different desirable features. But what makes those solutions better is not always clear, especially to someone who didn't specifically study this in school. Hence the art. But that's what engineering is - art. Principally the art of finding technically correct solutions that meet your needs and fit the constraints (usually dominated by limited time and limited money). Typography is that too - a heady blend of science and art. Kind of like my wife and I.

P.S. - If you've read this entire thing, and found yourself bored to tears, let my wife know via the comments so that she can disable my access. I would hate to drive away her readers.

P.P.S - You'll notice this post is full of hyperlinks. If you post anything to the Web (aka the Internet to most people, but that's a misnomer - maybe I'll post about that next week if I'm still allowed to), make sure to link in your text to other relevant pages. It's these links that make the Web...well, a web.


Miracle Gro said...

There goes two minutes of my life I will never get back . . .

Just kidding. I love my LaTeX. I just installed the new version of MikTeX. It's pretty cool. I may even have to start doing beamer presentations.

Shauna said...

Whoa...and I thought the 5th Grade Science Fair Project this weekend was complicated!

The second time through... I got it...I think!

Carmen said...

I love it. I went through the first year and a half of the electrical engineering program at BYU, and throughout the classes it hit me several times that there are many art forms in engineering. It's nice to hear the thought put out by someone else.

B. Allred said...

The angle of the dangle is proportionate to the square root of the hypotenuse of an isosceles triangle. Yep, now I sound smart too.

But seriously, very interesting.